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Technology has the potential to change everything: Rita Soni

Aug 30, 2012

NASSCOM Foundation's CEO, Rita Soni believes in the power of technology in changing the lives of people and how responsible business has to go beyond the traps of just being philanthropy. In a conversation with Bushra Ahmed of OneWorld South Asia, she talks of the many facets of the IT industry and corporate social responsibility practices in India.


For Rita Soni, CSR in India might not have progressed as much in the North, but she has ensured that NASSCOM Foundation follows the edicts of responsible business in as many ways possible.



One of the most innovative ways is the rural BPOs model that NASSCOM follows. In Soni's words, 'by going beyond tier 1 cities and recruiting from the rural towns, we are combining business with social benefit'. Like one of the BPOs in Bangalore that recruit primarily disabled people, not believing in discriminating on such grounds or opening up an engineering colleges in the rural interiors of India, these are small ways companies do business with a responsiblity. The Foundation works with the constant question 'how to use tech to do good'. NASSCOM Foundation is an organisation that puts forward its CSR by knowing that 'technology has the potential to change everything', as Soni puts it quite triumphantly.

And why not, ICT tools are one of the biggest game-changers in a country like India. From maternal health to education to accountability; information technology brings about changes all over the country. The Foundation's own initiatives are geared towards facilitating this ICT-driven transformation through effective alliances and partnerships.

Like for many in the business community, the impending Companies Bill 2012 is quite a concern. Soni, belongs to that group of crusaders who believe in the adage of ‘with power comes responsibility’. She quotes Azim Premji of Wipro, when she illustrates her take on how businesses should function: 'when you get to be a certain size, there are additional responsibilities you owe to your country.' She feels the 2 per cent will be a ‘backward step’ and that CSR is meant to go beyond the law, integrating it into the system.

By integrating she means about basic tenets like sustainable development, where good practices are stitched into the system. This is a concept that is a much-talked about one in the CSR circle. From activities like re-using computers to principles of sustainability being embedded in the supply chains, Soni hits the nail on the head when she talks of need for creating dialogue and creating more platforms like the Foundation which will serve as platforms for exchange these dialogues.

For now, Soni seems to have cracked the code for responsible business with success. Some excerpts from Rita Soni’s interview with OneWorld South Asia:

OneWorld South Asia: How would you describe NASSCOM Foundation’s role in the industry?

Rita Soni: So, its apt you’re talking about CSR and talking to NASSCOM Foundation about it because of our role vis-à-vis the industry. The Foundation, as the social arm of  NASSCOM, is really meant to be the corporate social responsibility arm. We’re actually not even using the CSR phrase out here but business responsibility; primarily because in India CSR has been equated with philanthropy. And while that’s an important part of a company’s work, we think it’s not the only part.

OWSA: Considering NASSCOM’s work with the IT industry, how would you rate the Indian IT industry’s CSR activities as of now?

RS: There is no consistency across the industry, per se. But I would say, the IT-BPO industry does lead the way. I mean a major reason the Foundation was brought into existence is that just from being there the IT industry has made a big difference. Whether we’re talking of the reputation of the industry or the number of jobs created; the industry has created 3 million jobs since its inception. And when we look at the trickle effect, we see that there are 3 or 4 more jobs created in the peripheral sectors. I think we’ve seen companies do phenomenal things in area of CSR. We do hear about sustainability being a core factor in many big IT companies. We see this when there are awards given, you always see the IT/BPO companies in top rankings of CSR. So the first time, CII gave an award outside the manufacturing industry, the first one they gave away was to TCS and Yes Bank. So it was really rewarding to see it was these sectors and their work taken seriously.

That said, there is a huge amount of opportunity. It starts with sharing of practices that go beyond philanthropy. So for example, the Foundation focusses on including people with disability. Now, we like to talk of CSR with business benefits; so CSR not only done with the goodness of our hearts but there is business sense to it. With the growth of the IT industry there is huge need for talent. In that sense, why should we as an industry ignore particular segments, because we don’t necessarily see them as ‘able to function’. And we demonstrate time and again how that is a wrong way of tackling things. In ways like these, we’re driving home how CSR is beyond philanthropy.

OWSA: What are the reasons you think the IT industry leads?

RS: The fact is that the industry is made up of entrepreneurs. And many of them are first time entrepreneurs not coming from business families. In such people the entrepreneurial spirit gives way to innovation and very creative ways of thinking. It’s more about leading the way than anything else.

OWSA: How would you compare CSR in India with CSR in other countries?

RS: It's a rather complicated question. Social responsibility and taking care of communities has been a long-standing tradition in India. So for businesses it was a natural progression to take care of communities. That's why I am concerned about the National Voluntary Guidelines being enforced in this way. In many ways quantification of the finances allocated to CSR will be a backward step. Laws are meant to get individuals to behave in a certain manner, CSR is meant to go beyond the law.


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